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last train to leamington
(by jonathan miller)
may 1997

leading ambient housemeister banco de gaia has just completed his eagerly awaited new studio album. jonathan miller finds him changing tracks as he steams towards greater commercial success.

succeeding in today's frivolous music industry is no easy task. when sos last spoke with banco de gaia - or toby marks, for they are one and the same - in february 1994, he'd just signed a deal with planet dog and released his desert wind debut single, and his recorded output consisted of three home-produced cassette albums (with enchanting titles such as freeform flutes and fading tibetans), plus appearances on several compilation albums, including each of beyond's acclaimed ambient dub series. but chart placings are not necessarily a true reflection of an artist's popularity, for toby swiftly graduated with honours into the 'grand jall of ambient dance', alongside the likes of the orb, regularly performing to ecstatic crowds both at home and abroad. in 1995, toby's impact at the glastonbury festival was such that the guardian was moved to comment "...there was one act - and above all, perhaps, one single moment - which somehow epitomises the reason why one feels glastonbury could last another quarter-century yet... the packed crowd in and beyond 'a' marquee on the avalon field burst suddenly into a semi-devotional chant at a climatic moment during the set of the weekend: that by banco de gaia, classified as ambient house music."

this musical zenith was prompted by the track mafich arabi with its infectious arabic mantra-like sample, as featured on maya, toby's excellent 1994 debut album. unknown to him, this performance was captured for posterity on multiple adat's by the glastonbury team, later resurfacing in 1996 on the banco de gaia live at glastonbury album, the cover of which depicts a lone roland sh09 analogue monosynth in the middle of a field of cows... maya shifted 20,000 copies in the u.k. alone - not bad going for a relatively low-profile independent release; last train to lhasa, its 1995 double follow-up, fared even better.

phantom of the opera

i met up with toby marks as he was putting the finishing touches to his fourth, as yet untitled, album at world bank, his cosy private studio in warwickshire. before we discussed matters of a more hi-tech nature, i had to ask toby about his unusual recording pseudonym. it's a question i suspect he's faced on many occasions, but he nevertheless obligingly answers. "banco de gaia is the title of a short opera by puccini about a day in the life of an accountant who works at a bank. it's considered to be the most boring opera in the history of western music, because it's literally just about this guy getting up, having his breakfast and going to the bank, working out who owes what, and then going home. it never really peaks! i thought it was so ludicrous that a top composer actually wrote this really dull opera that it seemed as good a name as any, frankly. maybe it can work the other way around: a crap composer can be described as a genius!"

mmm. forgive me if i'm just a little sceptical here, for toby's official internet homepage confidently states that 'banco de gaia' was the nom de plume of deceased italian fascist dictator benito mussolini's gay lover! however, it does also warn: "not everything you read is true..."

"there are loads of things i'm interested in - nothing to do with music and not relevant in any way, except as an influence at some deep level," says toby, "and i'm lucky i can put them up on my web site. the reasons why i like writing music, travelling, and why i care about tibet are all interlinked. ancient civilisations, other cultures and other spiritual systems are fascinating to me. that's why i find the world such an interesting place - though not the present day: of all the societies throughout history, this is one i'd almost certainly not choose to live in. some years back this guy called james lublock came up with the gaia hypothesis [gaia is a greek earth goddess]: the earth itself is one living organism, and unless we treat it with some respect, we'll destroy it."

university was a disappointment - "i thought studying philosophy was going to be about questioning god's existence, and it was all about the logic side of it, so i didn't bother" - and toby soon left warwick to travel in egypt and morocco. "travelling about has enabled me to record stuff and buy tapes, so i've built up a large supply of sounds for creating samples. i'd love to go travelling again with a d.a.t. recorder and record hours and hours of stuff around the world. ideally, i'd like to take a filmmaker with me - so if there's anyone interested out there...? i plan to go away for a few months to various places to meet local musicians; record and film them; then come back, chuck it all into the sampler and record an album."

toby's travels have stood him in good stead in the creation of his rich, layered, diverse and often danceable music, as he utilises all manner of exotic samples and effortlessly weaves them into an intricate electronic web. roland's flagship s750 sampler first formed the backbone of the recognisable banco de gaia sound; toby has since invested in additional, fully-expanded roland s770 and s760 samplers. "they're lovely to work with. you've got a proper screen and a mouse for editing, so you don't do your back in leaning over to work with a poxy little screen - although the s760 hasn't got that and so gets used more as a playback machine. i also like their sound. akai and roland samplers process sound in different ways and neither is entirely accurate, but whereas the rolands warm things up, akais tend to make things sound precise; like an engineering tool."

"the samplers do most of the work," toby admits, but he uses conventional synthesisers too. "the nord rack can play four parts; i've got the novation bassstation rack, the oberheim matrix 1000, and a midi'd roland jupiter 8 and juno 6, all of which tend to get used on most tunes. a lot of the arpeggios and lead lines are created using the analogues, then percussion, basses, effects, some pad sounds, and strings, are generally sampled. live, the samplers are doing almost everything. i don't take the jupiter on stage anymore, so i sample its sounds instead.

"personally, i find the possibilities of sampling fascinating - i think what i do is musically, aesthetically and artistically valid. i'm not using samples because i can't play and haven't got ideas of my own, although there's certainly music around that does come across like that! sampling something is just the same as taping it, except that before recording with a conventional multitrack you need to know whereabouts in a tune you want something to be. with a sampler, you can put it wherever you like. so using samplers isn't so radically different to traditional ways of working musically: it still requires someone to perform, and the better their performance, the better the end result. having a good sampler and a crap performance doesn't make a good tune."

toby freely admits to spending less time creating his own samples from scratch these days, although this wasn't always the case: "on my early stuff, i just sampled what i felt like, and that's how i learned to work: i heard a sound that inspired me and used it. say i was working on a tune and suddenly thought, 'hey, this needs a banjo', i'd simply go and find something with a banjo on it, without worrying about copyright implications. now that i'm selling records, i can't do that, so sample cd's have been great: i know i can go out and buy a copyright-free cd that's got banjo sounds on; maybe not played the way i want, but at least the sound is there. this is probably another reason why i don't bother with digital synths - why buy a korg trinity or wavestation for a particular sound when the samplers can do it?

"having said that, there's always the risk with samples that someone else is going to use something on a prominent tune before you do. one worry about this new album is that it's taken about a year and a half to write and lot of the sample cd's i've been using have been available for quite a long time. it's quite possible that by the time it gets released you'll have already heard a part on something else. then again, was chuck berry bothered about constantly using the same chords? if it works, it works!"

save a prayer

the legalities of sample copyright have caused toby a few problems, including the premature deletion of his early cassette albums, medium, deep live, and freeform flutes and fading tibetans. "it's the practicalities of the situation that i'm not content with," he argues. "i totally agree with the principle that a musician should be entitled to remuneration if someone else uses a bit of their recording. personally, i'd be flattered if someone sampled a bit of one of my albums, although i might be bothered if they sampled eight minutes from one tune! the problem, as ever, seems to come from the people in suits in offices. "in the case of the 887 track [on the live at glastonbury album], there's a vocal taken from an old car advert and it just sat beautifully in this live version, as if it had been written for it. but, unknown to me at the time, the number got recorded and we ended up wanting to release it. so we contacted the publishers, and they wanted a 50% cut! we said, 'look, this isn't like a song where the vocal is half the tune; it's just a five-second sample,' - so then they asked for 30%, which was still ludicrous, but worth it. 

"the singer was fine about it, as were the record company, but it turned out that the original recording had been made by a production company that, as far as i understand, is one guy. he'd had a reasonable advance from the record company that never got fully recouped when the track was released as a single. if we paid the record company to use this sample, then he'd not actually get anything; it would just go towards paying off his advance. so he wanted to get something out of it as well - he bunged the price up by a couple of grand and suddenly it was no longer financially feasible to do it. if i'd been allowed to talk to him direct, then quite possibly we could have come to an agreement, but a whole series of managers and lawyers was involved. the way it all worked out was pretty unsatisfactory." eventually, the offending section had simply to be edited out.

bargain basement

currently based in a rented factory unit, toby's world bank studio is ergonomically laid out, with virtually everything at arm's length from a central seating position. an a-frame stand against one wall is groaning under the weight of an impressive collection of predominantly vintage pedigree roland analogue synthesizers: a juno 6 atop an sh09 and a recently acquired sequential circuits pro one monosynth, plus the monstrous jupiter 8. toby bought roland's former flagship polysynth for just 350 and the comparatively diminutive sh09 - as depicted on the live at glastonbury sleeve - for a measly 50! "it used to belong to matthew corbett, of sooty fame, who's actually the reason i got into electronic music in the first place! the jupiter is wonderful. it's fat - not with a 'ph', i might add! the juno 6 is pretty basic - no midi, no memories, but it's wonderful live. it's great for emphasising dynamics and putting in little fills in a way that you just couldn't do with an m1 or sy85."

toby is no great fan of these synths' digital counterparts: "i was toying with the idea of getting a new digital synth, thinking i'll get something that sounds so wonderful and inspiring that it'll take me in a whole new direction. so i borrowed a korg trinity for a couple of days. and really it's the same old thing over again: good pan pipes, interesting marimba, the acoustic piano slightly better than it was on the m1 - but there wasn't really much in there that excited me. it's got this touch screen which everyone seems to think is wonderful, but it takes about five seconds to redraw if you change a patch.

"i'm not specifically slagging off that instrument, it's just that i still don't like most of the digital synths about. you can make them sound good, but i'm not a programmer; i don't like going through loads of bloody menus, they drive me mad. whereas there is an immediacy and intuitiveness about an analogue synth: if you understand what adsr and frequency means and know what the knobs do, then it makes sense: you move them, the sound changes.

"the nord rack, though, is wonderful - the best of both worlds. it's got knobs and they all send midi data, which is what i've always wanted for the jupiter. it's got endless modulation possibilities and, because it's digital, it doesn't have the tuning problems of the jupiter, so i can risk taking it out on tour. i wish i'd gone for the keyboard version - it's the kind of synth you want to be playing and tweaking simultaneously - but i didn't want another keyboard to hump about live, and the keyboard doesn't have aftertouch! i know version 2 responds to aftertouch over midi, but it still doesn't have an aftertouch keyboard. for god's sake, it's 1500! i'd quite happily pay 1600 if it had aftertouch, so that's why i bought the rack and hooked it up to the m1, which has a better keyboard anyway.

"there's potential in digital technology and digital synths, and there may be other things around now which i'd love if i heard them. i haven't played around with a korg prophecy yet, which is a good example of virtual synthesis."

the luxury gap

toby has made an impressive investment in the computer stakes, with apple's prevailing heavyweight powerMac 9500/200 running emagic logic audio 2.6 and digidesign's pro tools 3.0. 

"i've started working with saxophone players and getting involved with a lot more live playing," toby explains, "so i needed to get the digital audio side of things sorted out. it was starting to get a bit bulky for the samplers."

using the powermac for time-stretching applications, for example, has eased the process enormously: "suddenly things that used to take half an hour now take five minutes. now it's feasible to try things out just to see if they'll work, without wasting an hour if they don't. when i'm time-stretching something on the sampler, by the time it's finished i can't work out if it's better or not and i've completely lost the thread of what i'm doing."

total recall

despite now owning a state-of-the-art computer-based recording and editing system, in retaining a mackie 38:8:2 console toby has consciously steered clear of automated mixing. "i'm a traditionalist," he claims. "i can't get used to the idea of virtual mixers when i've got a real one sitting there - what's the point? i like knobs, as it were - well, potentiometers or variable resistors, for want of a better phrase! i've been talking to people recently about digital desks and, while it would be great to have total recall, how many knobs are there on something like the yamaha promix system? i know you've got an assignable data wheel, but i couldn't work like that - especially live. imagine if you wanted to hit the reverb on a snare; you'd be thinking, 'okay, assign track 3 to aux send 2. damn, missed it! oh, well...'. you'd spend the whole bloody tune getting ready for one reverb shot when you could be making countless other adjustments elsewhere at the same time using a conventional mixer.

"having total recall of every parameter would be wonderful, though. at the moment i often work on a tune, go away and do something else, and then come back and set up the board again, and it never sounds quite the same. but that random element can sometimes work in your favour: because the centre frequency of the low-mid eq is actually at 250hz rather than 220, that kick drum might be much better than you got it sounding last time. it's useful to know you've just got to press one button and everything's back where it was so you can carry on where you left off, but i could never live with just working with a few knobs. maybe this is because i grew up on portastudios, then graduated to big mixing desks - that's the way i visualise a mix. i can't imagine how i'd look at a digital desk with only one knob and work out what's going on.

"there was a very valid point in the december 1996 editorial of sound on sound which said that every technology has to start somewhere. in the early days everything is over-priced and doesn't work properly. if there was a digital, total recall version of this mackie at a reasonable price, then i would buy it. at the moment the options are i'd lose all the flexibility and user-friendliness of the mackie to get total recall. even sound-wise, i don't think there'd be any significant improvement to be had by getting a promix over this. for the money, the mackie sounds great."

dark side of shepherd moons

my visit to world bank ended on a musical high, with toby premiering an excellent excerpt from the forthcoming banco de gaia platter. the track in question features virtuoso saxophone playing from none other than dick parry - famed for his exemplary work on us and them and money from pink floyd's dark side of the moon. the result? floyd for the next millennium. possibly. look out for uillean pipes recordings as well: this is one artist who's trying to avoid rigid definitions. "the music scene here is all very classified and pigeonholed," toby complains. "in germany, for example, i've tried very hard to make a go of it, but i don't really play techno, and i don't play some people's very narrow definition of ambient, so there's no interest, because no-one's prepared to try something they haven't tried before. whereas in the states, this whole electronic music thing is all new, so people don't distinguish between me, the prodigy, higher intelligence agency; we're all new electronic 'dancey' acts, and it's exciting. 

"people like what they like, and don't care if something's got a '909 kick drum or sounds like it's got a real drummer playing. in america, it's the gap between the scenes that people are looking for. that, to me, is so refreshing, because as time goes by i'm feeling less and less part of any scene." 

banco de gaia's equipment list

synthesizers

  • korg m1

  • clavia nord racknovation bassstation

  • oberheim matrix 1000

  • roland sh09

  • roland jupiter 8

  • roland juno 6

  • roland gr50 (guitar synth)

  • sequential circuits pro one

sampling

  • roland s750 (18mb ram turbo cpu)

  • roland s760 (32mb ram)

  • roland s770 (18mb ram turbo cpu)

computers/sequencing

  • apple powermac 9500/200 running emagic logic audio v2.6 and digidesign protools 3

  • apple powerbook 520c running emagic logic audio v2.6

  • opcode studio 4 midi interface

recording

  • mackie 32:8:2 desk

  • sony tcd d3 dat

  • tascam da30 mk ii dat

processing

  • aces 2 x 15 graphic eq

  • alesis quadraverb effects

  • alesis midiverb ii reverb

  • aphex type c exciter

  • art proverb 200 reverb

  • bbe sonic maximizer 422a

  • boss microrack delay and reverb

  • boss se70 effects

  • roland srv2000 reverb

  • roland sde330 dimensional delay

  • roland srv330 dimensional reverb

  • spl vitalizer

  • studiomaster gates and compressors

  • yamaha q2031 graphic eq

monitoring

  • tannoy dtm15 mk ii (main)

  • genelec 1019a (nearfield)

home and away

"i did all the writing and pre-production for the first two albums at home and then took all the gear up to gighouse to record it - a commercial studio near here, in a converted barn. it's a beautiful place to work; really peaceful, surrounded by fields and trees and birds.

"i've been recording the new album here at world bank, because i've finally got some reasonable monitors in the tannoy dtm15 mk ii's and a workable room. at the moment world bank is in this building - it's a conceptual construct, because i always liked the idea of calling a pile of equipment in my bedroom something! "it's been interesting having the studio here, 20 minutes away from where i live. when i first started working here it was great not to be working at home, with people always dropping round and the phone ringing all the time; i came here to do music and when i went home i was separated from music for the first time in my life. at first this really helped me focus, but then i started getting uncomfortable being here, and i realised it was because i was so bloody lonely. for the last few months i've had some of the gear back home to do some writing - and it was great, but all the hassles about being constantly interrupted by phone calls started again and i remembered why i moved away!"

"although i'm living in leamington, which is quite a small, quiet town, i'd like to find an old farmhouse with a couple of barns or outbuildings that i could convert. i want to be out in the country and see sheep and trees in the morning - pandering to my hippie aspect!"

  credits

reproduced without permission from sound on sound. to be used for private and research use only. original article is here.

copyright 1997-2002 gavin stok. all rights reserved